Vermont Public is independent, community-supported media, serving Vermont with trusted, relevant and essential information. We share stories that bring people together, from every corner of our region. New to Vermont Public? Start here.

© 2024 Vermont Public | 365 Troy Ave. Colchester, VT 05446

Public Files:

For assistance accessing our public files, please contact or call 802-655-9451.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

How Should We Be Talking About Sex?


This is TELL ME MORE. From NPR News, I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, author Taiye Selasi is with us. You may have already heard about her because of the buzz around her award-winning short stories, drawing on her experience as a first-generation African immigrant. Now she's published her debut novel. It's called "Ghana Must Go," and we'll talk about it.

First though, we wanted to talk about an issue you might've talked about in your house lately, especially if you have teens at home or are one yourself. It's about teens and sexuality, and we want to talk about this because of this very disturbing story out of Steubenville, Ohio, where two high school football players were recently convicted of sexually assaulting a 16-year-old girl at a party.

Now, the case sparked a lot of debate because the facts were both mundane and bizarre. The young woman was so intoxicated she didn't remember anything that had happened to her. One of the young men was convicted not only of assaulting the girl but taking pictures and disseminating them. So many tough questions arise from this case; did these young men seem to know that this was wrong? Why didn't any of the other kids who witnessed the assault speak up and stop it? And what was the girl's responsibility in all of this?

We wanted to talk about this with three people who've thought a lot about issues like this. Laura Sessions Stepp is the author of "Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both." She also works with a national campaign to prevent teen and unplanned pregnancy.

B.J. Bernstein is also with us. She's a criminal defense lawyer who has been an attorney in high-profile sexual assault cases, a number involving young people, including Genarlow Wilson who served two years in prison for having consensual sex with a 15-year-old girl when he was 17.

Also with us is Malik Washington. He's the deputy director for the William Killebrew Foundation. He works with communities to end violence through education and outreach. He is also a former residential advisor at Howard University and a former TELL ME MORE intern. Thank you all so much for joining us.


MALIK WASHINGTON: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: I do want to say, this might not be appropriate conversation for everyone, so just with that being said, B.J., what is it that struck you when you heard the facts of this case and what happened here?

B.J. BERNSTEIN: I think it's not because it seemed new in the sense of the influence of social media, and I think that's what partially caught this case, made it so big and also that it seemed to be a cover-up to brush it under the rug, and law enforcement wasn't aggressive until Anonymous, the group that kind of brought this to light.

So that's what made the story explode, but me having worked in law now for 25 years, I'm thinking to myself the social media component is new, the underlying issue of youth, sex, alcohol and drugs is still with us, and we aren't clearly doing the job to teach our young people. And I'm wondering now, do we redirect it, especially to parents? That are parents, institutions abandoning their duties to let these young people know how serious the consequences are?

There's no way those kids knew that night, any of them, what would've exploded and how easy it is for us to have what we think are difficult conversations but a heck of a lot simpler than the kind of conversation you have when there is an assault and there is jail time and there is victimization.

MARTIN: Malik, I wanted to talk to you. I'm glad you were able to join us because you have been a youth counselor - you are now - and you're also a peer mentor to young men. And Laura, you know, you're going to talk about the young woman and what might've been going on with her, but a lot of other people have been really wanting to focus on what is going on in the young men's minds...


MARTIN: ...that they thought this was OK.

WASHINGTON: Well, you know, I just think that we really have to teach young men to respect themselves. A lot of sex education tends to focus on pregnancy and STDs, but when it comes to the emotional side and the mental and the spiritual side, a lot of the focus, you know, from parents is to our daughters. We teach our daughters to value their bodies and value sex, and we have this idea of saving themselves, but when it comes to young men, you know, the idea of young men, the idea is just that boys will be boys.

One of the most disturbing details out of Steubenville is that this happened in front of so many people, and the immediate assumption is that these young men had absolutely no regard or respect for this young woman, but the other side of it, the unmentioned side, is that these young men clearly had no respect for themselves.

I don't know how logical it is to believe that men who don't respect themselves physically, sexually and emotionally are going to respect those same things in others, particularly young women who are valued even less in our society. So what we have to try to do, and I think what we do through our work and through my personal work is that we try to teach young men that, you know, they are more than their sexual anatomy, they are more than their quote, unquote, "sexual conquests." Because if we don't, we kind of lend them to behavior that is not only detrimental to themselves but is very detrimental to the women that they're going to try to engage themselves with sexually.

MARTIN: I wanted to talk with you, Laura, because a lot of your research and reporting has been with young women.

STEPP: Right.

MARTIN: So I want to ask you what struck you when you saw this.

STEPP: Well, one of the first things that struck me was that she was apparently out, so to me, that makes what the guys did even worse because she couldn't even fight back. But I think as much as we've talked to girls about rape and goodness knows, they've heard a lot more about sexuality and rape than you or I ever did when we were growing up, there's still a sense of feeling worthless.

And I think if I read correctly about her background, she didn't have a lot of self-esteem to start with, and so it's a very complex issue, I think, both for girls and guys, and I want to say, generally, I think guys, in their defense, have even fewer places to talk about sexuality and what's proper and what's not proper than girls do. Now, that may be changing, and I think it is, but they want to be seen as manly, and what in this culture is more manly than being able to take a woman? And so I think we need to really talk to our guys about what does it mean to be a man and when do you step in.

MARTIN: Let me ask Malik this. When you were at college, when you were at Howard and now in your work as a counselor, do young men want to talk about what's OK and what's not OK?

WASHINGTON: I know that young men want to talk about sex. They want to talk to us about girls, but it's mostly along the lines of how do they get girls, and women being seen as an accomplishment, an achievement, how far can you get with women and how do you get there. I don't know that their mind is that they want to know what's right or wrong.

In fact, the way that they talk about sex is very much not along those lines at all. Their head is just not there, so you know, as shocking as Steubenville is, it's also somewhat believable that men could engage in this and that so many people could see it and not see anything wrong with it or say to themselves, well, it bothered me but it wasn't enough for me to speak up. It's kind of believable because their heads aren't there, and we haven't done enough as parents, as mentors, as adults to really address it because I don't think that we know.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about sexuality and teens in the wake of this very disturbing story out of Steubenville, Ohio, where two high school football players were convicted recently of sexually assaulting a 16-year-old woman. The case has sparked a lot of conversations about what kinds of conversations we should be having with young people about sex.

Our guest star, Malik Washington, he's a youth mentor and peer counselor. He's with the William Killebrew Foundation; criminal defense attorney, B.J. Bernstein who's had a number of cases involving issues like this; and Laura Sessions Stepp is author of "Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both.

B.J., you know, you've had a number of high-profile cases involving teenagers where boundaries were overstepped. OK? Is there a through line that connects these cases that you're aware of? Like, is it generally that alcohol is involved or...

BERNSTEIN: Certainly, alcohol and drugs are usually involved in all of these situations. The other thing is I think - and I can put it from this perspective. Since all these cases - there are times where I go talk to young people, whether it's an organization that invites me or a school invites me, and it's interesting to talk to them because, one, I am usually very direct. And this is a population - young people now, if I have to say anything about how they were different from where we are, is they do smell a fraud a mile away, and so when I take advantage of what I've seen in a case, and I paint the picture of what a party's like and what people are doing and what they may be thinking - for instance, let's say something starts as consensual and then the female wants to stop it, and we haven't told her how to stop it, especially if she's intoxicated and he's intoxicated. How do we get them to understand that when something looks like it's getting out of control, that even though you may be doing something illegal, such as alcohol and drugs, you need to step out of it, perhaps, and call someone else to get involved.

MARTIN: Let me ask you, though, about the alcohol question. Let's say, for the sake of argument, that if a young woman is assaulted, the fact that she's had a lot to drink means what? And if the young man who's accused of assaulting her has also had a lot to drink, does that mean anything?

BERNSTEIN: Well, every state is different in terms of how they define rape and sexual assault. Generally speaking, intoxication in and of itself is not a defense. But in terms of practical terms when you are trying a case, the intoxication affects how a jury is now looking at the situation, to say, you know, what was it reasonable for that person to do or not do?

You know, in the Steubenville case, the argument is that the young lady was completely comatose. Where it's a more difficult conversation is where she's intoxicated but is she intoxicated to the level that she can no longer consent? And that is a very difficult decision to make because the evidence of that is other intoxicated kids who are at a party trying to assess whether this person could or could not have been consenting to the behavior.

MARTIN: You know, Laura, one of the things I'm interested in is this whole question of the line between consent and assault. You know, you think it's a bright line, but what I'm hearing from these young people is they don't seem to think that it is. You know, we've all heard no means no. But did they feel that no means no? Did they feel that they knew how to draw lines for themselves?

STEPP: Some did and some didn't. I remember one young woman who said I said no, but I said it so softly, he probably didn't hear it. They didn't really, in some cases, didn't think the guy would go that far, and once you're in the heat of the moment, you know, you want to say no, but you're worried that he won't like you anymore.

I mean, what does freely given consent mean? I mean, that's a really tough issue, I think, for jurors or even parents when they're talking to their kids about what does it mean to give your consent.

MARTIN: Well, what about the fact that - I mean, I think we should just try to be just blunt here. I think there are a lot of people, particularly in the wake of this Steubenville case, but in other cases, where people, say, sort of fall in two different camps. There's girl camp, and then there's boy camp, right?

STEPP: Right.

MARTIN: Girl camp is, you know, no means no, this girl, it doesn't matter how drunk she was, this should never have happened, that a boy should have the wherewithal, the common sense, the sense of decency to stop doing whatever it is that he's doing. Boy camp seems to be why is that fair?

If the boy is just as drunk, just as young, just as stupid, why then is he a rapist for the rest of his life or to be so sanctioned by the criminal justice system when he's just as young and stupid and exercising just such poor judgment? Who's responsible for what? Who's the person who's responsible for being the grown-up in this situation or how do they see it?

STEPP: I wish I could say that they do sort it out. They don't. I mean, there's a lot of argument that goes on now between guys and girls about this, but it's all without a whole lot of knowledge because, again, we haven't prepared them to ask those questions.

MARTIN: When we counted the boys that you mentor and counsel, how do they see themselves in these relationships? Do they see themselves as always the pursuer and aggressor, and it's all a matter of kind of maneuvering around the girls' presumed resistance? Because you hear both things. You hear some parents of young men say that they find girls to be very aggressive these days in pursuing their boys and that that's very confusing.

WASHINGTON: Yeah, I think that they do see themselves as the aggressor or the person who's going out to receive this act or whatever you may call it, and regardless of whether the woman is aggressive in pursuing that, you know, sexual encounter, I still think that the burden tends to fall on the man, in most cases. The man tends to see themselves as this is my doing, this is my accomplishment, this is my achievement, this is my willingness.

You know, I think what you said about, you know, the whole boy camp/girl camp is very valid, but I think it's a little bit more than just a question of fairness. I think a lot of men are going to project how their bodies are treated onto women, and thus there's a lot of confusion when you're in that encounter, and you're both intoxicated. And you have some type of sexual interaction, and you realize that, wow, you know, you were in complete control of your senses, and supposedly, she wasn't.

I think a lot of men have a difficult time understanding that, and I think that a lot will be said that our whole rape culture has to do with a culture or society that kind of objectifies women, and I think that that's very valid.

But I don't think that the way that we've conceptualized consent has done very much to blunt that. In fact, it's kind of just aided that. It's still, you know, you're consenting to being an object, you're consenting into giving yourself to a man. That's the way that sex is still framed. And I think as long as we frame it like that, that sex is something that is given from a woman to a man, we're going to have a lot of difficulty in just sorting this out with rape and sexual assault.

MARTIN: In the time that we have left, I would love to hear from each of you because each of you has really made the point that there's a lot of conversations that young people aren't getting. So in the time that we have left, I'd like to ask you, what kinds of conversations should we be having? And the kids that you talk with and work with, have they ever said to you, I wish someone had talked to me about this? So B.J., do you want to start?

BERNSTEIN: Starting out, number one is I didn't know that was against the law because music, film, everything that they see, it's not clear that what they're doing is illegal, and that's one very sobering fact for a lot of folks, so that's step one. Step two is not realizing, you know, at least for my boys and girls, that their physicality, the physical, you know, human nature of sexual arousal occurs and how are you going to stop it? Where do you stop, and where's the line of stopping, and how are you supposed to read that situation? And that's very tough detail to cover, but in retrospect, I think they all wish they had thought about that before the worst situation happens which puts them in my office either as a defendant or a victim.

MARTIN: Hmm, Malik, what about you?

WASHINGTON: I think that the law is a good place to start because that's the ultimate say, but I also think that we should tell our young men that, you know, sex isn't going anywhere. If you're not sure, if you have some doubts or if you're not completely confident that, you know, this is a completely consensual thing, then just don't do it.

MARTIN: Laura, final thought from you?

STEPP: I think we need to bring guys and girls together to talk about it. We tend to say, well, we'll talk to the girls about this, and we'll talk to the guys about that, so I think we've got to bring them together to talk to each other. You know, the guy will say, well, I didn't mean that, and the girl will say, but I thought you meant such and such.

They need to be having this conversation between themselves, with adults around to help them talk it out. In fact, if you wait until your kid is 14 or 15 to have quote, unquote, "the talk," you've waited too long. There's lots of material out there from the campaign and other places that walk parents through what they can start talking, how they can start talking with their kids about the opposite sex, about sex early on and then keep moving that up. So that when they get to the point where they're going at high school football game, the kids generally are freer then to talk to their parents about it.

MARTIN: Laura Sessions Stepp is author of "Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both." She also works with the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. She was with us in Washington, DC. Also, with us, B.J. Bernstein, she's a criminal defense lawyer who's represented a number of parties in high-profile sexual assault cases. She joined us from member station WABE in Atlanta.

And with us from WESA in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Malik Washington. He's now deputy director for the William Killebrew Foundation that works with communities to end violence through education and outreach. He's a former residential advisor at Howard University and a former TELL ME MORE intern. Thank you all so much for joining us.

BERNSTEIN: Thanks, Michel.

STEPP: Thank you, Michel.

WASHINGTON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Latest Stories